There are several plantation houses within about an hour’s drive from the city, and a few offer tours of the homes and enlightening history lessons. I never pass up an opportunity to explore beautiful architecture and history, so off I went.
In the New Orleans area of Louisiana, there used to be over 400 mostly sugar plantations. On old maps, you can see thin strips of land containing sugar cane farms owned and run by individual families. Some, with more acreage, prosperity, or better management than others, survived. The most enduring remain as historical sites now open for tours and storytelling. The land of some, sold to corporations, still operates farms.
As you tour these homes, the guides, décor and displays attempt to give you a sense of what life was like on the plantation in those times. There is a lot of beauty in the “simpler” times, for sure, but it also brings home the horrors of slavery in a way that nothing else can do. It is a perspective-shifting experience for anyone.
And the New Orleans sugar plantations were said to be among the worst of all – as sugar cane was the hardest to work and the environment the harshest. It was usually an added punishment for any enslaved person to end up in New Orleans. The plantation tours didn’t always talk about these things, focusing only on the beauty of the home, but now, thankfully, they do and we're getting a wider perspective of the history.
The Laura Plantation is a Creole-style house painted maroon, green, and yellow, making it stand out dramatically compared to other houses around it, or other plantation homes for that matter, which tend to be more reserved in their color choices, almost always opting for white or something near to it.
Our guide, Cameron, a light-skinned Creole, took us to the front of the house and talked about the history of the buildings, the family that owned the home and the general ways of sugar plantations in the south. The trees out front caught a breeze, and the branches blew in our direction as we walked through an old herb garden.
He said the famously colorful house had been painted white at one time to blend in and to hide their Creole roots – because Louisiana was banning French and trying hard to Americanize everything, so at that time, they painted the house white to blend in.
Preservationists have since peeled back the layers of white paint on the house and brought back the old colors on Laura Plantation once again allowing it to stand out.
LIFE ON THE PLANTATION
Inside the house, we walked room to room as with all these southern homes, each room opens into the next and the next with a porch wrapping around outside on upper and lower levels. The kitchen was outside, and there was no bathroom.
The rooms in these plantations are ornate but not overly so. They were in keeping with the times and not as grand as some other homes I’ve seen from the same period that aren’t plantation homes. Plantations, first and foremost, were farms, so the luxury is in keeping with that. Whereas a house in the city would have been much lusher. Many “farmers” may have owned several plantations and city homes, plus summer homes near the water. I say homes but I mean mansions.
In each plantation house, there are pictures of the family, and here, Cameron told the story of the great grandparents to the last family member – Laura – who sold the home and farm. For many years, it was a private residence before finally being resold and opened as a museum.
THE DOCUMENTS OF SLAVERY
In the back of the property, there are old enslaved people's cabins and documents outlining the buying, selling and pricing of humans. That these cabins exist at all is amazing since most were destroyed. Luckily, some still survive.
The enslaved person’s cabins in the back were so much smaller and sparser in contrast to the big house that it brought a noticeable pall over the group of us – all white.
Once slavery was abolished, there was little for once enslaved people to do to earn a living. Many owners kept them on as hired hands and paid them. The plantation owners then charged them room and board and paid them with certificates they could only use at their own plantation store. So any chance of leaving was low, free or not.
NEW ORLEANS PLANTATION REGION
Unable to maintain their crops and make a profit, plantation owners sold their land, and big corporations took over the growing and processing of crops. Now, much of our agriculture comes from other places, like Mexico.
The New Orleans region used to have over 400 hundred plantations along the Mississippi River, but now there are fewer than a dozen. Almost none are still functional. The houses are gone, the land sold off, suburbs and corporate land replacing them.
There is so much more to learn about this time in history and how these people lived and visiting these places is a good way to start. The gift shops sell many books about the lives of these families and the plantations up to the current day.
You can take a guided tour of the Laura Plantation and grounds for $25. Find it at, 2247 Highway 18
Vacherie, LA 70090.